The Fate of the Books
- Part Two

all these books?" And invariably he answers, "No, but I have used them all."

What Litwack means to emphasize is that while he loves books for how they smell and how they look, he mostly loves them for what they say. His library is a working library, and he wishes that the UC Berkeley collection served his needs half so well. For years he has sent the students in his American history survey course to the main library to do the research for an eight- to ten-page paper. He wants his students to get their hands dirty from the very beginning, to develop a facility with original sources: books, documents, and manuscripts. To that end he has even encouraged them to use the special collections at the Bancroft Library, a move that has not always endeared him to a staff accustomed to dealing with a select group of professors and visiting scholars.

Litwack sees the assignment as a kind of indoctrination into the world of books, an indoctrination that is particularly necessary for a generation that is accustomed to doing all of its research on the Internet.

"They ask me, 'How do we footnote information from the Internet?'" he says with a hint of astonishment. "Well, the Internet provides some very valuable information, but it also provides you with some very misleading information. A lot of distortion. And I guess I'm still old-fashioned enough to believe that a student should do more than sit at a machine."

This year, for the first time, Litwack plans to allow his students to use certain pre-approved Web sites, but he will not be sending them to the main stacks. The main library, he says, is no longer suited to the research needs of his students.

To show me why, Litwack accompanied me to Doe, the campus's main library. It's a lovely granite building, built in 1907 with a $780,000 grant from lumberman and bibliophile Charles Franklin Doe. Four years ago, the building's old and overcrowded stacks were replaced by a new 143,000-square-foot facility named in honor of former university president David Pierpont Gardener (the appellation infuriates people like Gray Brechin, who note that much of the library's decline occurred under Gardener's reign). The new stacks are a marvel of contemporary design; although built entirely underground, they are arranged around a circular staircase whose starburst-patterned skylight manages to infuse all four levels with a sense of light and air. At each landing there are tables and chairs for lounging, and the stack areas themselves contain long wooden study tables lit by incandescent fixtures. It's a beautiful space, but not, in Litwack's view, a very efficient one. "I would never want to begrudge students their wonderful tables," he said. "But we had to sacrifice something for them."

That something, Litwack argues, is books. "It's a beautiful building but it has no soul," he told me. "Books seem almost an embarrassment. They're stashed away in a corner with this new system of shelving. For browsing, can you think of anything more discouraging?"

Here he gestured to the compact shelves that occupy the north side of the stacks. The shelves are the last innovation in library design-sleek metal cases that have three times the capacity of traditional shelves. They are grouped in tight rows of eight or twelve, and only one row can be opened at a time. To get a book, you twist the crank on the row you need opened, and the other rows then slide together like drawn drapes, allowing you to dart into the breach.

As we stood gazing at the row that held the call numbers pertaining to African-American history, a woman who had been squatting there with a book on one knee jumped to her feet. "Do you need me to move?" she asked apologetically. And that, library traditionalists say, is the problem with compact shelving. One person can tie up twelve rows of books, and there are stories of near-fistfights breaking out in the stacks during the crowded times of year. As Gray Brechin remarked, "If you're at all polite, you can't browse."

But browsing, in Litwack's view, is essential for research. "I tell students, get the call numbers of the books that seem relevant to what you're doing and then take those call numbers and go to the stacks and look at everything else around them. Because you're going to find books by browsing, you're going to find treasures that wouldn't have normally attracted your attention if you had seen them in the card catalog or the computer listing."

Researchers, particularly historical researchers, turn positively lyrical when they talk about browsing. Journalist Nicholas Basbanes described to me the excitement he had felt the week before when he had gone into the Widener Library at Harvard to find a rare book about the library at the Durham Cathedral and discovered a 1911 book about medieval librarians on the shelf beside it. "This is a wonderful, wonderful book-I copied the whole darn thing," he told me. "Now if I'm doing my research entirely on a database on the Internet, I'm never going to find that book. That's the serendipity of going into a library, when you find things you never knew existed. And it happens to me all the time. I sometimes think it's almost fated-you've been directed to this book. I can give you twenty other instances, where you go in to find one thing, and because it's all there, you have this spirit, this inquisitive wandering spirit. You're drawn to things."

American libraries were designed with browsing in mind-it is the reason for open stacks, and for arranging books by subject according to the Library of Congress system. But browsing-or what Litwack likes to call "reflective perusal"-is fast becoming as outmoded as the card catalog. Open shelves simply take up too much space. Fifty-three percent of the main library's collection is already housed off-campus, at the Northern Regional Library Facility in Richmond, and while few people in the library administration describe themselves as enthusiastic devotees of the new shelving, the alternative is to send more books to storage. But there's something else that rankles Litwack. Many of the shelves in the main stacks are one-third to one-half vacant. "I've had people tell me that because of the compact shelving, we have more books here than in the old Doe," Litwack says. "But when I look at these shelves, my question has to be, 'What's at Richmond, and why isn't it here when we have all this empty space? It almost takes your appetite away."

hen I posed the question to Germanic collections librarian James Spohrer, he explained that the new stacks weren't meant to be filled up right away-they were designed with enough excess capacity to last another three or four years. "We didn't want the building to fill up on day one, so we would have to build a new building," he explained. Still he added, "We have far more books than we ever had in the old stacks, by a factor of tens of thousands. But it's hard for people to see that when they see the shelves."

Other librarians told me privately that they thought more books could be on the shelves at Doe. "If I were in charge of the main library, I would have more materials on the shelf than they have," said one. "They have got the space. It has become a habit to keep sending things to storage."

The question of what books end up in storage is a tricky one, and one of great interest to the faculty. The simple answer is that the books that don't circulate or seem obviously outdated are the ones that end up being stored. But that policy, while sensible on its face, takes much of the kismet out of library research. "You don't judge a book by when it was last checked out," Litwack says. "There's nothing more exciting when you're browsing than discovering that nobody has checked this book out for ten years. Those are the treasures! But you're not going to find those treasures in the main stack anymore. Those treasures are all at Richmond."

I had visited the Northern Regional Library Facility in Richmond a few days before, and I could confirm that it was filled with treasures, or at least books that were odd, old, and unusual. I had been curious about the place ever since I was a Berkeley undergraduate confronted with the problem of wanting to see a book that was listed in the card catalog but stored in Richmond. Having the book retrieved was a simple matter of filling out a request, but most of the time I didn't bother. Books from Richmond had a cobwebby, disused feeling to them, and I always felt somewhat apologetic about having disturbed them, as if I had woken up someone's grandparents.

Tucked behind a scrim of eucalyptus on the grounds of the university's Richmond field station, the NRLF is a low, white warehouse with a taller red annex adhered to its hind end, a monument to functionality over form. It is, in the words of Virginia Moon, the facility's head of deposit services, "a facility for little used books." There are 4.3 million such books inside the building, 3 million of which belong to UC Berkeley.

Moon has graying black hair, a ready smile, and a slight Southern accent, and she proved to be an enjoyable tour guide, not only because she had a good sense of which things were interesting and which were not, but also because she was the first person I had met in the library system who did not seem to be suffering from a certain weariness of spirit. The NRLF hasn't had to reckon with the increased expectations and decreased resources that have plagued the campus libraries; its job is simply to store and retrieve books. Requests for books come in by fax, phone, or e-mail, and the NRLF staff promises that the books will arrive at the main library within 24 hours, although it can take as few as two. The facility can also scan articles from journals and e-mail them directly to faculty and student accounts.

At the loading dock, workers in white gloves were quietly putting a new shipment of books on carts, checking them first for dirt, damage, and insects, and then sorting them by size. Size is the sole criteria by which books are judged at the NRLF; in order to save space, they are organized on the shelves by height rather than by call number. Each book receives an NRLF bar code when it arrives on the loading dock, and if that book is permanently recalled to the main library, the same code will be bestowed on another book of equivalent size. The facility was the first in the library system to go online, and its database records not only when the book was purchased and by whom, but also whether its pages are brittle or its binding beginning to fray.

As we walked through the main floor toward the elevator that leads to the stacks, I found myself stopping to examine the contents of the carts that were parked nearby. There were civil engineering hydraulics abstracts from 1988, Indian government reports with titles like "Demarcation of Responsibilities" and "Department of Posts and Telegraphs," a big folder of US agriculture department weather maps, and grainy Chinese newspapers from the 1940s. "This is a problem-high acid paper," Moon observed as I looked over the yellowing pages. "I can walk up and smell a high acid truck." I bent down and sniffed the pages, encountering an acrid smell like vinegar or photo chemicals.

Nearby was a stack of acid-free cartons and when I went over to see what was in them, I saw that they were labeled "John Mortimer, papers." I peered into the top carton (Moon watching me carefully), and saw a stack of folders, each one containing the notes for a Mortimer story: "Rumpole's Last Case," "Rumpole and the Blind Tasting." "Needless to say, the Bancroft material is the most popular here," Moon remarked as I reluctantly replaced the lid on the carton.

When we reached the third floor, Moon led me through an air lock and into the stacks themselves. In the dim light I could make out endless rows of shelves that reminded me, melodramatically, of prison cells. The room was cold and echoey and I could feel my nostrils tickle in the dry air, kept at a constant fifty percent humidity to preserve the books.

Moon showed me how the staff shelves the books two-deep to save space, and then she let me poke around for a few minutes, examining The Memoirs of Baron De Marbot and The Student's Standard English-Urdu Dictionary and a bound collection of The American Bee Journal from 1939. I asked Moon if many books had gone back to Doe after the new stacks opened in 1994. "No," she said after a moment's thought. "Some things have gone back, but not many."

As amusing as it was to read about prewar beekeeping and look up the Urdu word for "sandwich," I had more fun on the fourth floor where the most valuable books and manuscripts are kept. It is the fourth floor that has the look of an old library, shelves piled with ledgers, manuscript boxes, and leatherbound volumes with ridged spines and intriguing gilt titles like The Country Around Manchester and Eggs of British Birds. There were four-inch-high 18th-century field guides teeming with colored plates of butterflies, bound volumes of the Daily Alta California dating from 1860, and ledgers from the Union Lumber Company of Fort Bragg, which recorded payments made for meat and taxes during the month of March, 1900. "Can you imagine pulling this out every day?" Moon said as she hefted the ledger back into place. "This is what people did before computers."

I described all this to Litwack as we walked through the main stacks, and he listened raptly. "But of course you realized it can't be browsed," he said when I was done. "They're not arranged that way."

A few days later I met with Ellen Meltzer, who runs the teaching library that is housed at Moffitt. The teaching library was created in 1993 to teach both students and faculty how to do research. In practice, that means teaching students how to use books, and teaching faculty how to use computers. "The students want to go to the Web for their information, and for those of us who were brought up in the book world, it's hard to take," she said. "This is such a fabulous collection. You can have a really obscure index to some kind of newspaper or some kind of periodical, and you look up the citation in our catalog and we have it. I don't know if the students know what a treasure we have."

Meltzer has a round face and earnest dark eyes, and when she really means something she gives a quick smile for emphasis. Like many librarians on campus, her speech is cautious, a legacy of having been on the defensive for most of the decade. And it's a strange time for librarians. Bibliophiles by nature, they have found themselves proselytizers for a new technology that threatens to eclipse -and perhaps replace-the printed page. "Although some people see digitizing the collection as taking away from the print collection, we have almost no choice," she told me. "I mean, we're not spending the money that people imagine we're spending, but I think Berkeley is a leader, a national and international leader, and we need to be doing this."

Starting at the library's Web page (, Meltzer took me on a whirlwind tour, talking all the while. In quick succession we visited MAGS, a full-text online database of 1,500 popular and scholarly periodicals, and JSTOR, an archive of academic journals that allowed us to look up the coalminers' strike of 1897 in the Journal of Economic History. We examined photos of Ansel Adams and read a little of Jack London's Iron Heel in the Bancroft archives, looked up a recent discussion of the Irish potato famine in a database called NEWS, and whipped past such intriguing offerings as the "Advanced Papyrological Info System" (a "virtual library with catalogs of each papyrus and its characteristics"), and the Earth Sciences and Map Library's catalog of Aerial Photography. Then Meltzer reproduced a search she had done for a student who was looking for information on the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, an obscure anti-miscegenation law from Virginia that she ultimately located on a Eugenics Bibliography posted on the World Wide Web. When we were done I felt dizzy, breathless, and absolutely certain I would never be able to make sense of all those databases on my own.

"There's so much out there that it does take some expertise and some winnowing down," Meltzer admitted. "To have someone help you, that's the coin of the realm. You can bumble your way through. But if you're trying to do research, scholarly research, or really find out something, the Web is not the place." Then she gave me one of her quick smiles. "Who'd have thought," she said, "that our whole orientation in the library would be around the Web?"

I think we are at a time of profound cultural change," Professor Robert Berring told me the same afternoon. "I think we are moving from an entire culture that's based around the book to a new form of intellectual and social communication. Right now we're at a time when both cultures overlap, and it's a very difficult time for libraries."

Berring is a bearlike man with a quick wit and a well-developed sense of irony. He is both a law professor and the law librarian at Boalt Hall, and as the former dean of Berkeley's library school, he's in a good position to talk about the way libraries are changing. "Institutions have made the jump to the next generation of electronic information, and it's very appealing because it's glitzy, it's cutting edge, big boys play with it, and they believe that there are cost benefits involved," he says. "It's expensive to build buildings, it's expensive to house all those books, and it's expensive to hire people to take care of them. And so we've been shrinking the size of the library staff, we've been increasingly moving to offsite storage, and there's been a general movement away from having reference librarians as the first contact people for undergraduates and graduate students. I think that's a gigantic mistake."

The problem, Berring says, is that the online environment is not mature enough to take on the responsibilities the new generation of library planners have in mind for it. "As appealing as leaping into the future may sound, there is nothing there to land upon yet," he wrote in a California Monthly essay that was published alongside Litwack's. Instead, the Internet is a pastiche of serious research and unsubstantiated rumor, an uncurated museum of information where finger paintings and Picassos hang side by side. It is also, as Meltzer pointed out, easy to use poorly and difficult to use well.

And that is why God created librarians. All the librarians I interviewed for this story told me that they had chosen the profession because they liked helping people-not, as you might expect, because they liked books. "I used to be a reference librarian and I think it's one of the greatest jobs on earth," Berring told me. "And the reason is, people who come to the reference desk, for each one of them it's a big problem: I can't find blank. And a lot of the time, I do know where blank is and I can explain how you find it. What librarians have always been good at is working with humans. The people who design computer systems are not good at working with humans. They don't have a sense of how people use things. If people have trouble using their elegant system, they blame the people."

The result has been that the information explosion has dramatically increased the workload for librarians. Ten years ago you could walk into any library in the country and feel fairly confident that if you opened up the drawer of the card catalog labeled "Da to De" you would be able to find books about Dante and Debussy and Dentistry. But every online database has its own array of buttons, boxes, and codes, and the fact that you've developed a facility with one is no guarantee that you'll be able to use another. Even MELVYL and GLADIS, the computerized catalogs for the UC system and UC Berkeley respectively, require the user to type in different search commands. Multiply that by the thousands of catalogs, databases, bibliographies, and indices available online, and you have a lot of questions for the reference librarian.

But Berkeley has 38 percent fewer professional librarians than it had ten years ago, and many of the reference desks have been left unstaffed, or staffed by people without the expertise to answer complex questions. "If you've ever tried to surf the Net and you're looking for festivals in Switzerland, you'll know why we need librarians," James Spohrer explains. "Because you'll come up with 25,000 hits, and if you're lucky you can go through one-tenth of them before you actually have to leave. What librarians do is they decant information for you. We had over 25,000 reference sources in our old reference room at Doe. Not every librarian knew what was in every one of them, but as a group the staff knew how to answer just about any question on academic subjects or any subject that would be interesting to people in a college setting. As it stands now, the information center [in the main library] is staffed largely by library assistants, who in most cases don't have a degree in library studies."

The added demand on staff is just one of the many hidden costs of the new technology. Another is the cost of the machines themselves. "People budget for the equipment, but they don't budget for the replacement of the equipment in a relatively short period of time," observes John Roberts, the head of the Music Library. "As the library gets more and more computers, the cost of maintaining that array of machines becomes greater and greater. And that is not a problem that has been satisfactorily addressed. I don't mean just fixing them. I mean replacing them. Because the technology is changing so rapidly that perfectly good machines have to be phased out because they can't handle the latest software." The library now has over 800 PC workstations, 2,000 network connections, and three large servers. The cost of maintaining and upgrading these resources is estimated to be about $665,000 per year, but that's predicated on replacing the machines every five years, which may be overly optimistic. Upgrading the 200 machines that don't have any graphics capabilities would cost another $575,000, plus an additional $165,000 per year in maintenance costs.

So far, the library hasn't had to pay much of the cost of the new technology. Most of the funding for digitizing the collection has come from private donations, while a $250,000 annual contribution from the vice chancellor's "Digital Library Fund" pays for digital subscriptions. Digitized versions of books and journals are often more expensive than their printed equivalents, but so far they account for only about three percent of the library's collection budget. "To me it's kind of a red herring to say we stopped building the printed collections in order to build the digital collections," Spohrer says. "We still put more than 95 percent of our materials funding into the printed collection. Not to say that it's enough, but even before the arrival of the digital library options we didn't have enough."

Still, Berkeley's digital collection is now considered one of the best in the country, with 124 new databases added in the past two years alone. And in October, the UC system launched the California Digital Library with an initial investment of $1.5 million that will be augmented by contributions from each of the campuses. "We're pursuing it as a tenth library for the UC system," explains the Digital Library's John Ober. "While the CDL provides some seed money, the nine campuses are coinvestors, and they have agreed to that." The virtual library will open its doors in January, offering such things as online versions of scientific journals, technical reports, and images from art museums. It is also expected to move UC a little closer to the "One University, One Library" model with a program that allows faculty and graduate students to use their own computers to request materials from other campus libraries.

All of these are wonderful resources. But when the so-called book dinosaurs walk through the libraries and see rows of new computers flashing colorful graphics at the same time that the traditional collections are withering away for lack of sustenance, it's hard not to compare the two. "The systemwide office in downtown Oakland is hiring all kinds of new people for the Digital Library, but they're certainly not hiring any new librarians," one librarian told me bitterly. Extra funds are going to computers and not to books, and while that doesn't necessarily represent the values of the UC Berkeley librarian's office, it does reflect the values of our culture, and of commerce. Pacific Bell and Sun Microsystems didn't ante up half a million dollars for books, they anted up money for computers, with the understanding that as both the library and its students grow accustomed to finding information at the push of a button rather than with a turn of the page, the flow of dollars will eventually reverse directions.

"If you graduate from college and the only way you know how to find information is through a full-text online database, then you're going to buy one for your house, or your company is going to buy one for you," Berring says. "It's a brilliant strategy. The way you're trained is the way you become comfortable. So they should give it away."

Berring doesn't buy the argument that the growth of digital resources on campus is unrelated to the decline of the printed collection. "It's completely bogus to say that the campus investment in computerization and information systems and networking and Intra- and Internet systems hasn't come at the cost of the libraries, because that's the information budget," he says. "So maybe it never passed through the [head] librarian's hands, but to the university it's one big budget. Now I grant you that a place like the university is in a pickle, because they don't want to hold onto a dying technology, the book. But I still think it's the only reliable one, especially for a large research institution like Berkeley."

The odd thing about the debate over books vs. computers is that it's hard to find anyone on the Berkeley campus who says that technology will save the library. There is no equivalent to Ken Dowlin, the former head of the San Francisco Public Library who so famously tried to divest the city of its awkward collection of books. When I asked Penny Abell, the former head librarian at Yale who became Berkeley's interim chief librarian in July, what she thought of the notion that the library of the future would be a "gateway" rather than a repository of information, she wrinkled her nose as if she'd just encountered a bad smell, and then covered her nose with her hand to keep it from saying any more. "The key here is what's the most available and appropriate source for information," she said. "From the user's perspective, it's not appropriate to talk about whether libraries are relevant, it's appropriate to think how we can meet the needs of the people who are trying to get their hands on information. I think the old, rich historic collections are going to be with us for a long time. And the online world will continue to expand."

Even the programmers creating the new digital libraries are old-fashioned book lovers. One is a Shakespeare scholar; another is a historian. "We all have backgrounds in the humanities and the arts," one told me. "I think all of us just wanted to make it easier for people to use the library. Right now all this Internet stuff is popular and sexy, and it's easier to get grants when something is trendy. But when it isn't anymore, we're in the same boat as the Mark Twain papers." (The Twain papers' archiving staff recently had to scramble to find matching funds for their NEH grant.)

"There are people among those who use the library who wish that digitization would go away, but I don't think you would find any librarians who have that attitude," agrees music librarian John Roberts. "I think it's perfectly clear that there are some enormous advantages to having a great deal of information in digital form. The real questions have to do with the pace at which the change is going to happen, and where we can expect to end up. Above all, are books and paper going to go away? Is the library as a particular place where you go to look at them going to disappear? Or are we going to continue to be a culture for a long time which deals with information both in traditional forms and electronic forms?" Your view on some of these questions depends on your discipline, Roberts says -in science and business there is more demand for the extremely current information that is available digitally than there is in a field like music. But the sciences rely on printed sources as well, and their faculties have been some of the more outspoken on campus about the need to maintain the traditional collections. "The best solution is to have everything in both forms," Roberts concludes. "But we can't have that. So it comes down to choosing what we can afford to have in what form."


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